Saturday, October 01, 2005

Katrina Diaries: Lord's Day

The best way to describe this Sabbath is that it has been a four ibuprofen day. We made of our work a worship, and recalled with our backs that the Sabbath was made for humankind not humankind for the Sabbath.

The “worship” began with prayer at 8:30, followed by a chorus of chain saws at 8:45. Before dinner was mercifully served at 7:00 we had gutted one house down to its bare studs and removed a ton or more of trees and debris from outside of another.

We are in an area spared the worst of the storm, and still the devastation along the shore is indescribable. Tornados reduce homes to matchsticks; hurricanes do the same thing and then sweep the matchsticks out to sea.

Such storms strike with a great egalitarian furry, sweeping away mansions and shacks alike. Along the beach road in Pascagoula we passed what, we were told, was the home of the wealthiest man in Mississippi. It is now a see-through – or, perhaps, sea-through – structure. The neighbor’s car rests in a swimming pool. One perfectly intact roof sits squarely on the foundation of a house swept away by the storm surge. The roofers would be proud of their work, but a bit mystified as to the whereabouts of the house they did it on.

Two blocks inland the homes are far more modest – two bedrooms on a slab qualifies as middle class; working class folks inhabit trailers. Just a few days ago all were six feet under the Gulf of Mexico.

Of course, while the wind and waves were no respecter of class, the economic structures that will determine the course of rebuilding are entirely class driven. There is a class of folks who are insured and another class of folks who are not. There is a class of folks who can afford to rebuild and another class who cannot. The wealth on the coast line here is not as deep as the flood waters were, and thus the outpouring of volunteers is crucial. Free labor is all some folks can afford.

But it will not, on its own, be enough to ensure the return of ordinary working folks – the shipbuilders, the fishers, the shop owners, police, fire fighters, school teachers, service employees and factory workers who have lived along this coastline in homes just a stroll away from the water.

Ensuring their return will take a massive influx of public money justly distributed. These days, the tens of thousands of folks all along the Gulf Coast need the concern of the federal government.

They certainly aren’t getting the concern of some insurance companies unless they have flood insurance. Homes utterly destroyed by the 25-foot storm surge aren’t covered by standard policies because the damage was caused by water not wind – never mind that the wall of water was driven by 150-mile per hour winds.

One home we worked on today was totaled by the storm surge. It had to be completely gutted, which we did. The insurance agent told the home owner to expect $10,000 to cover the roof of their shed, which was blown off by the wind, but to expect nothing for their house which was under eight feet of water when the surge rolled through. The family of five is homeless, but their shed will have a nice roof.

For now, the kindness of strangers is all that holds together many such families. Such kindness marks the first step on the road to recovery. There’s plenty of work to be done. Will there be enough strangers to do it?

Friday, September 30, 2005

Katrina Diaries: Heroes Highway

It is a long, long, long way from Arlington, Virginia, to Gautier, Mississippi. My butt is molded to the seat of this minivan! In my road stupor I am convinced that I rolled through northern Alabama listening to Jackson Browne singing “After the Deluge.”

The long, low ridge that emerges from the broad coastal plain just south of Birmingham marks the southern end of the Appalachians, and it seems to me utterly disconnected from the rest of those mountains. The distance is more than geographic and may be measured better in time than in miles. History in the south is Faulknerian: “the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.”

I cannot drive through Birmingham without recalling its critical place in the Civil Rights Movement. The pictures from the Gulf Coast of black people fleeing raging water are more helpless and, perhaps, hopeless, than the pictures from four decades ago of black folks fleeing water aimed with rage by Birmingham police. After the deluge there were no buildings fit to keep the children dry.

I am a southerner, born in Tuscaloosa just a few years before Gov. Wallace stood in the doorway at the University of Alabama promising “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” I know intimately, having graduated from Chattanooga High School with a class that was 50 percent white and 50 percent African-American, that the South has changed.

But sometimes I think those remarkable changes have been overtaken by other equally significant yet almost unremarked upon changes in the broader culture. The Civil Rights Movement itself reminds me of a time before we all became consumers instead of citizens, before we became bound more by a common market than by common humanity. I cannot think about the Movement without recalling the music that kept spirits high; a recollection that makes the destruction of music-filled New Orleans all the more dispiriting.

Yet driving down the “Heroes Highway,” as the interstate from Montgomery to Mobile is called, I saw a few signs of hope as I sped along in an ad hoc caravan of concern. Trucks hauling mobile homes for FEMA, Red Cross crews, other church groups – all heading for the battered Gulf Coast in an effort to close the distances that have separated us one from another for far too long.

Even after the deluge and amidst the apparent triumph of consumer culture, we remain, each of us and all of us, creatures of one earth. Perhaps we may recall this fundamental truth and live into it again as creation reveals its secrets by and by.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Katrina Diaries: A Long Day's Journey

I've been down on the Gulf Coast for a while, with no access to the cyber world but need deep in the muck of the real world. Over the next several days I will post reflections on my time in Mississippi.
If Frederick Buechner is right – if call emerges at the intersection of deep joy and deep need – then I am less called than confused. Why am I heading to the Gulf Coast to join a group of volunteers from National Capital Presbytery? The pictures from Katrina’s wake are compelling, to be sure. I am a pastor, and pastors are supposed to serve, right? After all, I have some experience in cleaning up after hurricanes and in leading mission trips. In addition, to my great surprise, an openly gay member of my congregation is heading down with the team. I am surprised at his participation not for doubts about his gifts – he holds a construction e license – but because the last time he joined a Presbytery mission trip he and his partner had to reenter the closet for the sake of the sensibilities of their Kenyan hosts and the experience was more than a little abusive. I am going, in part, to support Tom.
So I feel obligation and duty, longing and loneliness but little joy as I drive south. Already I miss my children and my wife and wonder about the faithfulness of leaving them and the congregation I serve behind.
Of course, while I may sense little joy as I embark on this journey, the dire need that awaits us in Mississippi is not in doubt. The images that have flashed across screens for the past two weeks are unprecedented in my lifetime. Although we’ve seen utter destruction before and too many times, the scope of Katrina’s devastation exceeds any natural disaster in the United States in the past half century.
On top of the breadth of destruction, the storm’s effects have clearly split along lines of class and race, and thus made clear the deep divisions and fault lines still running through American society. What most Americans don’t want to know or believe about their country has been laid bare in the Third World images beamed out of New Orleans. The commonwealth has collapsed.
A generation of Reaganomics and neo-conservative policies has eviscerated the public sector, intensified the radical individualism of American culture and widened the gap between the haves and have nots to a distance not seen since the Gilded Age. Grover Norquist, who has been called “field marshall of the Bush plan,” once famously remarked that he would like to shrink the federal government to the size where it can be flushed down the bathtub drain. The response of FEMA as New Orleans and the Gulf Coast were being flushed down the drain suggests that Norquist’s dream has come true – with disastrous consequences.
Meanwhile, right-wing Christianity, with its focus on narrowly circumscribed personal piety and individual salvation, has played chaplain to this movement.
In the faces of the women, children and men abandoned in the rising flood waters we are confronting the limits of the conservative social and theological imagination.
The deep need of the world is in those faces. They call forth both the immediate response of disaster relief – the hands on, boots in the mud work of thousands of volunteers, and also for a sustained political engagement confronting the powers in the board rooms of the corporations that will profit from this misery or fail to cover its victims adequately, and the hearing rooms of a Congress that still seems more interested in cutting the taxes of the wealthy than in meeting the needs of the poor.
Christ is in those mud-smeared faces, too. The incarnate one is in our midst: homeless, poor, feeling as abandoned as on the cross. As I drive toward Mississippi, I am realizing that it does bring me deep joy to witness to the reality that some still seek Christ in such places. When that joy of encounter meets such desperate need, Christ beckons – calling us to the public square and to public squalor to be repairers of the breaches in both places.